Flours

Flours

By
Claire Thomson
Contains
28 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
9781849499552
Photographer
Mike Lusmore

I have a crate that sits on the shelf good and full and squashed with bags of different flours, their tops all rolled down in height according to content. Pale blue stripe, wholesome brown, stout with a shouty promise of All Purpose, paper, cellophane, wholemeal, stoneground, gluten-free, this jumble of half-opened packets full of words and numbers all hold the same promise of alchemy. Mixed with water, milk, yoghurt, oil or eggs, leavened sometimes with yeast or a sourdough starter, bicarbonate or baking powder, given a handful of seeds, a swirl of honey, a good pinch of salt and so on, the versatility of these pounded grains makes them fundamental to the workings of the storecupboard. As a raw ingredient, from flour we get: bread, pastry, cakes, batters, dumplings, pancakes, pasta, biscuits, and not least the boiled, fried and baked preparations of coarse-grain flours like polenta, cornmeal and semolina.

On the floor underneath the shelf sits a 16kg sack of bread flour, its steady depletion determined by a firm bread-baking habit. Sometimes I will opt for a 100% white loaf, while at other times I’ll mix and match with the different, almost interchangeable, grains of spelt, buckwheat or rye. And sometimes I might prefer to add some wholegrain flour to the mix or go wholegrain all the way. Having an ample selection of flours on your shelf means that you can experiment and find a combination that works best for you and your cooking or baking.

More than anything I enjoy the straightforwardness of using flour to bake bread. Fed yeast or sourdough culture, flour will grow at a pleasing, organic pace. It wants to be bigger than it is. The culture or yeast feeds on the flour, producing carbon dioxide, expediting its growth and eventual transformation. Into a bowl go the flour, leavening agent and water, with salt to be added later. A vigorous stir and left well alone to grow in the half quiet of the house, hours later with the bubble of transformation at full tilt and wet hands to form and fold the dough in on itself, a loaf takes shape. On exit from the oven, here is a perfect loaf with a firm crust the colour of rust, blistered in places, a hairline crack where a gorgeous noisy crackle can escape as the loaf exhales.

If baking bread is a farinaceous mainstay, using alternative flours in my day-to-day cooking unlocks an international food viewpoint. Not all flours respond to gravitational hike. Some work better as a batter to coat, then bake or fry, some fry flat as pancakes, perhaps to stuff and roll then bake again. Some, like polenta or cornmeal, are best of all simply coaxed with liquid to morph in form and serve as sustenance. Wheat-free flours like buckwheat, rye and rice are prized, being good in a wide variety of sweet and savoury cooking.

Condensing the flour-based recipes into this one chapter has been a challenge; different flours crop up elsewhere and often. What I’d like best for this collection of recipes is to encourage a confidence to buy and use different flours. And while this selection of flours is by no means absolute, this is an accessible everyday selection. While keen not to demonize wheat (it is a tremendously useful grain for all those tolerant to it), I have also explored flour-based cookery beyond just wheat and white. Understand these flours, get to know their own unique cookability, how each flour responds to different ingredients, and you will feel bolstered by their presence in your storecupboard.

Larder basics

Wheat flours

plain

self-raising

strong white bread

wholegrain/brown

spelt

semolina

Pulse flours

gram (chickpea)

split pea

Grain flours

buckwheat

rye

cornmeal or polenta

rice flour

Sourdough starter

A sourdough starter is a living, breathing storecupboard staple. A few years ago we asked our good friend Kate to look after our starter for a fortnight; she said she found it more stressful than looking after her daughter’s school guinea pig. The sourdough survived (now 10 years old and still going strong), but if I’m honest, my sourdough stripes then still in their infancy, part of me understood Kate’s feelings about sourdough and guinea pigs. Sourdough did seem a rather finicky, lengthy method, best left to commercial bakers and not home cooks, for whom a sachet of dried yeast was a fine, reliable option. That was a while ago. I’ve since got to grips with the method and the maintenance of sourdough and am a convert. That said, I would recommend having a packet of dried yeast in your storecupboard, as this will give you the best of both baking worlds.

There is a snobbery that comes with sourdough. Some say, the older the origins of the sourdough starter, the better the bread, improving in both sourness and performance with age. Lucky then that serendipity works wonders in sourdough circles. If you use sourdough frequently enough, daily even, the starter will need to be fed every day in order to be supercharged and ready for optimum baking performance. As such, most enthusiasts should have a very merry starter and be willing to give you a small portion to feed up and begin a culture of your own. If you don’t happen to know anyone with a culture to breed from, just make your own. Fresh off the press, a newborn starter with no baking pedigree isn’t awful; it’s all yours and you started it.

To start, take a clean 1-litre clip-top Kilner jar (remove the seal for breathing space) and weigh an equal measure of bread flour (wholemeal, rye or spelt, organic and top-quality are best) and warm water into the jar, stirring well. Seal and leave in a warm place in your kitchen. Each day, for a week, feed the starter a tablespoon of the same flour and a tablespoon of warm water, stirring well each time. After a week, the mix should be sizeable and have begun to smell sour, with tiny, lively bubbles popping on the surface. In its infancy, the culture will be at its most weak but it should still have the power to leaven bread dough.

Starter husbandry is a fairly undemanding task with very little toil involved. You just need to get your head around the timescales necessary to make, prove and bake a loaf from scratch. If you want to bake sourdough daily, you will need to remove some of the starter and feed the mix with equal flour and water, stirring vigorously. With a healthy sourdough culture, you should need to use all but a few tablespoons of the mix. My baker friend Laura Hart points out that one problem people encounter is an ever-increasing starter, keeping too much back, so you end up with a culture with lots of ‘dead’ matter in the mix. Feed the sourdough only as much as you need to bake a loaf and be ruthless about not holding too much back, as this will alter the flavour and hamper activity.

The mix should be quite thick and gloopy, with tiny bubbles throughout and especially on the surface; somewhere between the consistency of PVA glue and a very wet bread dough.

If you don’t plan on baking for a few days, longer even, you can slow down the ferment by keeping the starter in the fridge. Remember, though, the longer it is kept in the fridge, the needier and greedier it becomes when you do want to bake with it. On your return to baking, you will need to remove the starter from the fridge, keep it somewhere warm and feed it to activate it again. How many feeds you need to give it will depend on the vigour of your culture. I’ve kept our starter in the fridge for over a week, fed it a couple of feeds that same day, and it’s been fighting fit to bake with the next day. You can tell whether your starter is ready to bake with by putting a spoon of the mix into a bowl of cold water. If the mix is lively enough to use, the spoonful of culture will float to the top. If it sinks, continue feeding the starter for a few more feeds and test again.

If the worst happens, and your starter is under-used, loses oomph and eventually dies (denatures), you’ll know soon enough because any bread you do bake with the starter will be sluggish to prove and the culture will no longer smell deliciously sour and fruity but downright horrid. If this happens, you will have to begin again; it’s only flour and water, so what have you got to lose?

Try using sourdough starter in any recipes that call for raising agents, for example, cakes, pikelets or muffins. Sourdough bread also makes the very best breadcrumbs and my storecupboard has a gaping great hole in it if it’s without breadcrumbs, so do blitz up any leftover heels of bread (crusts removed) and store in a jar with a lid.

Cornmeal

Cornmeal is made by grinding dried corn kernels into one of three textures: fine, medium or coarse. Cooked over a low heat with water or sometimes milk, it is a staple dish known in Italy as polenta and in America as grits. I am not a fan of the par-cooked/quick-cooked variety, preferring to cook coarse ground from scratch for a superior texture. With a naturally sweet taste and a fine gritty texture, fine cornmeal is useful in baking and when used to dust surfaces to stop doughs from sticking. Stoneground is best as it retains more husk, therefore more nutrients, and it is worth noting that cornmeal and polenta as packaged are the same ingredient.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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